In an earlier post titled, “Empathy, Kindness, and Maturity,” I heaped praise on empathy.
There I spoke about a dog who had recently passed away, and how my empathy helped the owner through his anguish. Further, I presented arguments that empathy motivates individual behavior that aids in solving communal challenges.
Since writing that post, I learned of a study by Sidney Blatt and his colleagues based on data from the large NIMH Depression Collaboration Project. These researchers found that the most effective practitioners shared the following qualities; being perceived by pateints as more caring, empathetic, and sincere then the less effective practitioners.
So, to me, empathy is a pretty good thing–I mean, what’s not to like?
Well, Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, recently has argued in a piece titled, “Against Empathy,” that it’s a bad thing—that it makes the world worse. Is he kidding me?
The Case Against Empathy
Dr. Bloom tells us that while we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion, it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.
In defending his position, Dr. Bloom tells us about the warm glow that many get when they give to charity.
“So, what they do when they give, is to give to a lot of different charities, and give a little bit of money to each one because for each one they get a little rush–‘Oh, I’m helping the blind babies. Oh, I’m helping the farm workers. Oh, I’m helping the chickens.’ The problem is that when you give a small amount of dollars to a charity, often it doesn’t do much good because the dollars they need to process your donation, in some cases, actually ends up with the charity taking a loss on your donation.”
In addition to the charity example, Dr. Bloom tells us:
“Empathy’s engagement, being caught up in the suffering of victims, is usually the number one argument in a democratic country for going to war…. If we ever go to war against ISIS, a full blown military war, it will be motivated by our feelings for the suffering of their victims. But that’s just one consideration. Other considerations are, how many people will die in the war? How many other victims will the war create? But our empathy, our selfish moralizing, zooms us in and says, ‘Oh, my God, there are these people who are suffering, let’s bomb the crap out of them; Let’s destroy the whole country to save these people.’ And then people are later surprised that apparently we killed, you know, we killed 50 thousand people. Gosh, who would have known?”
Is Dr. Bloom Right?
It seems to me that the good professor confounds in his argument the experience of empathy with what one chooses to do when experiencing empathy. Yes, in some situations in which we experience empathy we could choose to take actions that in the long run causes more harm then good, but in other situations we act in enormously helpful ways.
When we choose to try to help a person or group for whom we have empathy, this is called altruism if it is not motivated chiefly by self-gain. In natural settings, altruism has been clearly observed in human beings during disasters and the almost universal protection of parents of their offspring.
Consistent with Dr. Bloom’s position, there is some evidence available that indicates that sometimes people will, upon experiencing empathy, act altruistic without much thought to the consequences. For example, in a study carried out by C. H. Fellner and J. R. Marshall, these researchers found that some kidney donors told them that they had silently made up their minds about the “right thing to do” as soon as they were asked to consider whether they would be willing to make the sacrifice to save the life of a member of their family. These donors reported that they were not really very curious about, or interested, in what the doctors were telling them. They appeared to have applied a simple moral decision rule as soon as they realized what the physician was driving at.
This type of evidence is far from conclusive because the donors may have retrospectively distorted their accounts to present themselves in a favorable light. However, a number of other studies (see HERE and HERE) has led me to support the hypothesis that there are indeed times when people do make moral decisions without much careful thought. That said, I believe that in most situations that require some significant physical and material cost (e.g., exertion, time loss) such costs do influence helping decisions (see Black, Weinstein, and Tanur for a review of this research evidence).
I think that Dr. Bloom’s real worthwhile point is not that empathy is bad, but rather, when we experience empathy we should be careful. If our empathy seems to be urging us to be helpful in some way, we would be wise to indeed consider the long term, as well as short term consequences of our actions. This, in truth, is how all of our decisions are best made.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their stress management skills and their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.